As part of its mission to protect older Americans, the Senate's Special Committee on Aging held a hearing this past March on the issue of elder abuse. Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Wyden (D-OR), a veteran on the issue, asked each of the seven guest panelists what, aside from funding, was most needed to fight the problem.
Among their answers were increased federal leadership and research, multidisciplinary teams, and support for Adult Protective Services. There is one answer that the panelists didn't give, however, and it's not one government can easily address: help combating ageism. This social and cultural undercurrent, endemic and even conspiratorial, not only implicitly tolerates elder abuse, but also actually compounds it.
The term was coined in the late 1960s, and its original usage referred specifically to discrimination against the elderly. Although still used for that purpose, the word -- and America's concept of age-based prejudice -- has since also taken on a much wider meaning. The result is that 'ageism' is now applied to a much broader variety of groups and circumstances.
Of course not all victims of age-based discrimination are elderly. However, as our concept of ageism widens, it also becomes more shallow. If the term can apply to almost any adult, then what's left to distinguish ageism's most tragic victims, the vulnerable elderly? Not enough. It becomes too easy to see their suffering as a matter only of degree and that we're victims, too.
Elder abuse occurs in a variety of forms: physical, mental, sexual, financial, and neglect. Conservative estimates of abuse in the U.S. assume as many as 3.5 million victims annually, with only 15-20% of abusive situations reported. Experts predict the abuse will grow as several factors converge: aging baby boomers and their insufficient retirement savings, decreased federal funding, and Americans' increasing longevity. The stakes are high: Elders who experience abuse, neglect, or exploitation are at considerably greater risk for premature death.
Countless adults are victims of abuse through self-neglect, and institutional abuse often receives the most media attention; however, by far the most common abusers of the elderly are family members, especially spouses and adult children. The low reporting rate of elder abuse therefore makes unfortunate sense: Victims would often prefer to endure the abuse rather than risk the loss of independence, being removed from their family, or possibly being forced to move into a nursing home.
Americans' inattention to this issue has many causes, and high among them is fear -- the fear of seeing ourselves in the victims, of facing our own inevitable future of vulnerability and death. With its focus on youth, consumption and productivity, and living for today, our culture is complicit in this turning away. The tragic result is our inability -- or unwillingness -- to imagine ourselves in the distant future, potentially alone and unprotected. So we don't see that helping protect the elderly today helps protect us tomorrow.
In a society so focused on prioritizing the self and finding self-fulfillment, it is ironic that we seemingly care so little for our own future selves that we do so little to protect them. Perhaps we'd begin to care more about the victimized elderly if we at least acknowledged that we might someday be in their place.
For more information, visit the National Center on Elder Abuse: www.ncea.aoa.gov.
You can make a difference in helping stop elder abuse. Isolation is a contributing factor--try to stay in touch with the elderly. Also, please report any suspicious incidents to 911 or your local law enforcement agency. For non-emergency situations the NCEA offers a list of local Adult Protective Services.
William Mapother is national spokesperson for the issue of elder abuse awareness. He is also an actor, writer, and entrepreneur.